Previous Work

In the years following the vessel's loss, the wreckage posed a threat to navigation. To mitigate the problem, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracted a marine salvor in 1882 and 1888 to clear hazardous structures from the channel. As a result, all components above the main deck were removed leaving the lower hull intact (U.S. Army Engineers 1882, 1888). By the early 20th century, the wreck site disappeared from river navigation charts.

In the early 1980's a group of amateur historians began to search for the Maple Leaf. They found it in 1984. Soon after, the group formed a company, St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc.(SJAEI), and received a Florida Underwater Exploration Permit. Permit stipulations allowed remote sensing, diver verification of targets and excluded other private interests from the site. Intrusive excavation was not conducted until 1988. During the interim period, SJAEI divers inspected exposed areas of the wreck to determine the vessel's extent. Geoscience, Inc. of Gainesville, Florida, conducted a magnetometer survey in April 1985, to delimit the site's boundary (Cantelas 1992:15,20).

In 1984, legal ownership of the shipwreck remained a question. Excavation had to await a 1986 Admiralty Court settlement between SJAEI and the United States Government. The United States Government retained ownership through the agency of the U.S. Army and SJAEI received exclusive salvage rights (St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions v. Maple Leaf and the United States of America, 1986). With the legal questions settled, SJAEI spent the next two years acquiring the necessary state and Federal permits to work in the river. By 1988, all legal and permitting requirements were completed and SJAEI conducted its first intrusive excavation.

The group excavated in the aft cargo hold during 1988 and 1989 hoping to find material to conclusively prove the vessel's identity. This area was far from the damage caused by the explosion at the bow. In 1988, after failing to find the aft cargo hatch, a hole was cut through the deck to gain access to the hold. A search by feel identified barrels, boxes, trunks and a number of tent poles. Contents of three boxes were recovered to assess preservation conditions in the wreck environment and help identify the ship. Approximately 100 artifacts were recovered from these boxes; all generally personal in nature but some were military issue.

In the following year, 1989, work continued in the stern hold. A 3-dimensional mapping system was established using the internal ship structure of deck beams and planks. A datum was established in the hold and material located by counting deck planks and beams. Vertical measurements were taken with a pneumatic depth gage. This system provided a general control to establish artifact provenience before recovery.

The two year investigation found that most material in the aft cargo hold was packed in wooden boxes and consisted of camp equipment and personal belongings. Artifacts from all three regiments known to have material on board the ship, 112th Regiment of New York Infantry, 169th Regiment of New York Infantry and the 13th Regiment Indiana Volunteer Infantry, were recovered. Numerous artifacts were traced to individual soldiers whose names appear in regimental histories and muster roles. This evidence confirmed the identity of the ship as the Maple Leaf (Board of Survey 1864; Hyde 1866:71; New York Times April 13, 1864; Craig 1864).

After completing work in 1989, SJAEI spent two years developing a small conservation laboratory to conserve the artifacts. Most of the material was treated in this lab after consulting several professional conservators to establish treatment protocols.

The group returned to the site in 1991 to map the outline of the ship. Divers set up a grid over the wreck and used a metal rod to probe to the edge of the vessel. At the same time the grid was used to locate and map material protruding above the river bottom. An excavation was also made at the stern to examine the rudder (Cantelas 1992:30-36).

After the 1989 excavation, considerable time was spent raising funds to continue the project. The Maple Leaf Project became very popular with local media and this helped secure a small grant from the City of Jacksonville, Florida. Large scale funding to support artifact conservation and develop public education programs was not forth coming until 1991 when the Florida Division of Historical Resources awarded a Special Category Grant to the Jacksonville Museum of Science and History to support the project. In 1992, the state awarded a second grant to continue field investigations and fund professional assistance through the Program in Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology at East Carolina University.